Vicente Blasco Ibáñez Essay - Critical Essays


Following Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s first romances, five phases can be distinguished in the course of his prolific career. Into the first fall his Valencian works, from The Three Roses (which he considered his first novel) through Reeds and Mud and including two collections of stories, Cuentos valencianos and La condenada. Within this group, three works can be considered the novelist’s masterpieces: The Mayflower, The Cabin, and Reeds and Mud. Second are his novels of social protest, written between 1903 and 1905 and dealing with the Catholic Church (The Shadow of the Cathedral, set in Toledo, and The Intruder, set in the Basque provinces) or with the exploitation of workers in vineyards and in large cities (The Fruit of the Vine and The Mob, set in Jérez de la Frontera and Madrid, respectively). “Art,” the author explains, “should not be simply a mere manifestation of beauty. Art should be on the side of the needy defending forcefully those who are hungry for justice.” Nevertheless, interminable didactic monologues, long ideological question-and-answer dialectics, and overtly symbolic characterization lessen the aesthetic worth of these works.

The third phase comprises psychological novels in which the author stresses character development within specific settings: Woman Triumphant (Madrid), La voluntad de vivir (the aristocracy of Madrid and Paris), Blood and Sand (bullfighting in Seville and Madrid), The Dead Command (Balearic Islands), and Luna Benamor (Gibraltar). While some of these works are admirable for their characterization and for their descriptions of landscape and local customs, they are clearly inferior to the Valencian writings. Fourth are cosmopolitan and war novels, including Los Argonautas (a detailed account of a transatlantic journey, envisioned as the first in a series of works dealing with Latin America) and several novels written to defend the Allied cause: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Mare Nostrum, The Enemies of Women, The Temptress, and Queen Calafia. These novels proved to be as popular as they were lacking in artistic merit. Finally, Blasco Ibáñez’s fifth phase includes historical novels of Spanish glorification, ranging from the account of Pope Benedict XIII’s life to the voyages of Columbus and a love story set in Monte Carlo.

In some ways, Blasco Ibáñez is a transitional figure between the age of the realistic novel (1870-1900) and the Generation of ’98. Works such as The Fruit of the Vine and The Mob demonstrate his participation in the ninety-eighters’ preoccupation with Spanish social issues, and most of his works, particularly in his early periods, reveal the extraordinary sensitivity to landscape that Pío Baroja’s generation would display. Blasco Ibáñez’s regionalistic costumbrismo and use of descriptive detail are techniques that relate him to the earlier generation of Benito Pérez Galdós and José María de Pereda.

It was Blasco Ibáñez who introduced the pueblo, rather than the middle class, as a frequent source for the novel’sprotagonist, a character who struggles heroically against his environment and his own animal instincts. A convincing narrative action of sharp contrasts; a pictorial, concrete, sensual, often impressionistic realism of strength and beauty; and an admirable tightness and unity of plot are the features that set the Valencian novels apart as his most accomplished works.

Blasco Ibáñez was not a contemplative man, and his themes, while relevant and often powerful, are not complex or subtle. His modes of characterization, his third phase notwithstanding, are a far cry from the probing, individualizing approach of most of the late nineteenth century realists. His figures lack depth, are often excessively masculine and melodramatic, and seldom rise above mere types. They can be divided into two classes: good and bad. These opposites are inevitably caught up in an eternal struggle with each other or with nature. There are few inner battles of conscience, few motivations aside from those of glory, power, sexual gratification, or mere survival. Nevertheless, Blasco Ibáñez’s main type—the man of action, passion, animal instinct, and rebellion—is a graphic and powerful creation, made convincing by the sheer force of his portrayal, if not by any unique identity.

Batiste (The Cabin), Retor (The Mayflower), Toni (Reeds and Mud), and, in later novels, Sánchez Morueta (The Intruder), Gallardo (Blood and Sand), Centauro (The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), Ferragut (Mare Nostrum), and Renovales (Woman Triumphant) are such characters, presented in deliberate (albeit artificial) contrast to their opposites; these are weak and lazy types, such as Tonet (The Mayflower) and the other Tonet (Reeds and Mud). Blasco Ibáñez’s women are also one-sided—oppressed and overworked domestics, conventional society figures, or women of action and conquest. The last group would include Dolores (The Mayflower), Neleta (Reeds and Mud), Leonora (The Torrent), Doña Sol (Blood and Sand), and la Marquesita (The Fruit of the Vine). Finally, one should note that, even if Blasco Ibáñez did not create great characters, he was able to succeed in capturing dramatically the heterogeneity of the masses. Pimentò of The Cabin, who represents the people of the region around the Valencian huerta, is one striking example of this skillful portrayal.

Although Blasco Ibáñez has often been referred to as the Spanish Zola, he rejected the naturalists’ pseudoscientific, analytical approach and emphasis on crude detail, came to mitigate the impression of fatalistic determinism through his admiration of humankind’s will to fight and a suggestion of optimism, and, finally, often presented a lighter, less objective, and more poetic tone than is the norm in Émile Zola’s novels. Nevertheless, there are many moments in Blasco Ibáñez’s work when a strong measure of pessimism and philosophical determinism or the use of unpleasant language and description demonstrate the influence of French naturalism.

Finally, one should not forget that Blasco Ibáñez produced some of the finest Spanish short stories of the modern era. One has only to look at the moving portrait of the protagonist of “Dimoni” to realize the author’s skill in this genre. John B. Dalbor, the major critic to have undertaken detailed studies of these pieces, believes that many of the stories are in fact superior to the author’s novels and that the very best of these stories are to be found in the collections Cuentos valencianos, La condenada, and El préstamo de la difunta. In the Valencian novels, Blasco Ibáñez’s descriptive power—tumultuous, exuberant, dramatic, and exact—is most evident, a talent that sprang from keen observation and an uncanny ability to improvise.

The Mayflower

These virtues are evident in Blasco Ibáñez’s second novel, The Mayflower, set in the fishing village of Cabañal; the descriptions of regional scenes and customs and many of the characters are typically drawn from observation at first hand. The plot concerns the struggles of the poor fishermen of the Valencia area. Pascualet, called “El Retor” because of his benign clerical appearance, works and saves so that some day he can afford his own boat and free himself from the demands of another captain. His spendthrift brother, Tonet, is lazy and hates manual labor. When their father is killed at sea, their mother, Tona, cleverly converts her husband’s boat into a beach tavern, where she earns a meager but adequate living for the family. El Retor goes to sea as an apprentice, but Tonet turns to drink and women until he leaves for service in the navy. By this time, a child, Roseta, has been born of Tona’s affair with a passing carabinero. When Tonet returns to find that his brother has married the seductive Dolores, he soon agrees to marry Rosario, who has waited for him for many years. Soon Tonet renews (unbeknown to El Retor) his previous youthful encounters with Dolores, and battles between the sisters-in-law increase in frequency and intensity, despite the attempts at reconciliation managed by the ancient village matriarch, Tía Picores. A boy born to El Retor and Dolores is actually Tonet’s child.

After years of hard work and saving, and after a tense smuggling adventure that results in a considerable profit, El Retor is able to arrange for the building of the finest vessel ever seen in the village, named Flor de Mayo after the brand of tobacco that had been smuggled into Spain on the earlier trip. Prior to the ship’s second sailing, Rosario reveals to El Retor that for years his brother has had an affair with Dolores and that his son is really Tonet’s offspring. After a night of shock and humiliation and after refusing for the moment to avenge the affront by his brother, El Retor sets sail in one of the worst storms to afflict the coast of Cabañal. In a suspenseful and tumultuous final chapter, El Retor confronts his brother on board the Flor de Mayo, extracts a confession from him, and then refuses to give him the boat’s single life jacket. Instead, he puts it on the boy and tosses him overboard. The lad is thrown upon the rocks, and the ship is ripped apart by the fury of the wind. Dolores and Rosario, watching the action from the shore, mourn their loss, and old Tía Picores shouts a final condemnation of the people of Valencia, who are ultimately responsible for the deaths the women have witnessed.

Blasco Ibáñez’s viewpoint is usually one of relative neutrality and omniscience, and, as is the case with other Valencian novels, he frequently transports the reader through the minds of the various characters. Some subjective authorial control, however, is evident in the progressively dominant tone of fatalism, the use of situational irony, and moments of open humor.

The style is natural and spontaneous, at times distinctly colloquial. The reader is most impressed by the fresh, graphic, highly sensuous descriptive passages, lyric moments in which a vivid plasticity and an appeal to the senses predominate. Indeed, it seems logical...

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